Tony Hawk, Move Over and Eat Your Shorts Off: The Simpsons Take on Skateboarding
College is a unique and expensive time in a young man’s life. You pay the institution loads of money to ostensibly provide an education that will prepare you for the real world, both in terms of earning potential and molding you into a citizen of the world. But in truth, at least in the United States, it is often just an extension of high school, itself the former source of skills required to live in the world. College ‘kids’ go to class a little more free than they used to be, learning what it means to decide one’s course while accruing mile-high debt and still working a part-time job. At least, that’s what it was for me.
It was clear that the free high school education I received wouldn’t take me anywhere interesting. It seems the more time passes, the higher the bar gets raised. But hey, the diploma counts for something, right? I might have stayed in university if I had the good sense. Instead, in 2002 I decided a university diploma wasn’t as important as gaining skills toward the hobby I was most interested in at the time: web design. The Internet was all the rage by then and it seemed like a marketable skill that also just allowed me to do some cool stuff. This was before the era of YouTube where an insightful instructional video is a simple search away. So I left after a year of university to attend one of those once-thriving centers of career acceleration known as vocational colleges, where I’d focus on what they termed multimedia. Internet, Flash animation, CD-ROMs, oh my!
Oh, did I forget to mention I really just wanted to build fan sites about The Simpsons? That’s an important detail.
While I developed my web design skills in those terror-filled early aughts, I also joined a few different online communities. GameFAQs was a mainstay as I engaged in writing walkthroughs and learning, well, how to actually write coherent sentences. But I also stumbled across fan sites and forums dedicated entirely to The Simpsons. I’d been a fan for a long time, gathering a tiny set of personally recorded VHS tapes that contained my favorite classic episodes. But now I saw an opportunity for a new form of fan expression. I like video games… and almost no one seems to care about video games about The Simpsons… Quite the eureka moment, eh?
So I became That Guy in 2002, embarking on a quest to write walkthroughs for every Simpsons game ever made, both for the GameFAQs database but also for my newly created fan site dedicated entirely to those games. It was my niche and I stuck to it even as those Simpsons fan communities withered away or transformed into general hangout spots for people who’d become friends, somehow, across this wild ol’ Internet.
That’s an awful lot of words to say that in 2002 I became perhaps the only human being on planet Earth who was genuinely looking forward to something called The Simpsons Skateboarding. I was so eager to play it, in fact, that I posted regular updates to my fan site as it was delayed:
May 15th: The date has been pushed all the way to October 1!!! This is ridiculous. EA has yet to make any kind of official announcement about anything in the game, not even a release date. Damn, damn, damn…
November 1st: And finally, my bane. My strife. The soul antagonizing element in my life that is driving me insane and causes me to have violent, pillow-pounding dreams… EA has once again delayed The Simpsons Skateboarding.
The game did eventually release in November 2002. But how did this ill-timed cash grab come to be?
The Simpsons Road Rage burned rubber all over its creators’ expectations when it went on to become a critical and commercial success. It’s tough to hang with it today, but at the time it represented a fresh perspective on the Simpsons in video games that had failed to gel with the public until its release. The Simpsons Bowling and The Simpsons Wrestling a year kicked things off with their focus on a larger cast of playable characters in a clunky package, and The Simpsons Road Rage was arguably the zenith of that design. But not satisfied with that, Fox Interactive decided the cast of the show could fit into another popular video game format: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
There were skateboarding video games before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater premiered in 1999, and there were other skateboarding games after it, but THPS set a particularly fun standard for the genre that led to big sales and a franchise that eventually burned itself out until the nostalgia-driven remasters announced just recently in 2020. The games featured real pro skaters at a time when X-treme sports athletes were the next wave of popular trend setters. More importantly, the games featured their real moves with a well-designed control scheme that allowed any player to fly high in the air and cycle through any number of cool poses and tricks in order to watch the satisfying accrual of points in the corner. The maps were also more akin to skate parks than the downhill slaloms of such games in the nineties, and these open environments tagged along with the more prominent technical ambassadors such as Grand Theft Auto III to break away from corridor-based level design and allow players to simply roam around in big, decadent spaces.
So the template was there by the time Fox Interactive looked around to find someone to create a Simpsonized take on skateboarding. It’s not clear if this was a case of the publisher seeking a developer, or if the developer pitched it to them à la Radical Entertainment’s approach with The Simpsons Road Rage. Either way, the project led to another partnership between Electronic Arts and Fox Interactive, and a new developer in the mix: The Code Monkeys.
The Code Monkeys, like many of the development studios in this series, were a veteran of the game industry by the time The Simpsons kickflipped onto their doorstep. The studio was established in the late eighties by British programmers Colin Hogg, Mark Kirby, and Elliot Gay, and initially focused on games for largely European platforms such as the ZX Spectrum and Amiga line of computers. They pivoted to become a port house as console money swept through the nineties, with titles like Turrican for the Sega Genesis and Universal Soldier, a notable licensed game in their early catalog. The company trudged along into the PlayStation era and steadily took on more ports and licensed games across different genres, including the adventure in Disney’s Goofy’s Fun House and a mini game-driven treasure hunt in Shrek: Treasure Hunt just before they began their work on their one and only Simpsons game.
As noted above, the game was delayed numerous times throughout 2002 and never received the same level of advertising or marketing support as The Simpsons Road Rage, and indeed was only released for the PlayStation 2 instead of getting spread across multiple platforms. The game itself tells the tale as to why a company like Electronic Arts might choose to quietly complete its commitment and release the title. But Electronic arts wouldn’t give up on skateboarding just yet, releasing the skate. series by their EA Black Box studio starting in 2007.
Even after that quiet release, The Code Monkeys persevered. They kept on with licensed games for several years, then took on budget projects for mobile and the burgeoning digital space on consoles such as Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3. They even took a stab at self-publishing the Triple Sports series of games before deciding to shut down completely in early 2011. One might lament the end of any company as its employees must disperse and find new jobs, but a stretch of nearly thirty years is impressive. If only we could remember them for more than their longevity.
The gang’s all here… again. As in The Simpsons Wrestling and The Simpsons Road Rage, this game’s design focuses on throwing in a variety of playable characters from the television show and ensuring they have lots of dialogue to spew while they traverse their respective versions of Springfield. Players can choose from Homer, Bart, Marge, and Lisa, then unlock additional characters such as Nelson Muntz, Otto, Professor Frink, Krusty, and of course… Chief Wiggum? Was there a survey that determined Wiggum is a popular enough character to throw into a skateboarding game? In any case, the premise is even flimsier than Road Rage in that the player is once again vying for cash and points, but there is no villain except one’s innate ability to perform skate tricks or fail spectacularly. The only goal is to win an oddly specific $99 prize. As the game manual states while presumably trying to excite the player to play the game, “We’re talking literally dozens of dollars here!”
Motivation aside, this game is all about skateboarding. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series was in its fourth iteration by the time The Simpsons Skateboarding released, and it’s safe to say the genre founded by that series laid out a neat little set of game design rules for savvy game developers to follow. Those basic rules are in place in this game as well, with players controlling their chosen skater from a third-person perspective and perpetually glued to their skateboard, left with no choice but to skate forward and eat asphalt in a Sisyphean cycle of skating terror. Each skater possesses their own set of strengths and weaknesses across five skill categories: Speed, Turns, Jumps, Grabs, and Grinds. These skills determine each character’s starting skills, but players can accrue money during a career playthrough that is then used to pump up the skill levels for each category. It is the game’s only use for the weirdly miniscule amounts of money earned while skating (always in increments ranging from $0.10 to $0.50), but provides some motivation for sticking to a particular character and completing the game’s challenges.
The game gets surprisingly technical in its implementation of skateboarding tricks and moves. Code Monkeys clearly did their homework in that respect and it makes me think that a better skateboarding game might have come out of this if the developers weren’t tied to the Simpsons license. Instead, players have to watch clunky 3D models of Simpsons characters repeatedly perform tricks and moves that take time to properly learn and execute. With experience, players can learn to navigate vert ramps and pipes and pull off intricate strings of trick combos that allow the player to achieve temporary In the Zone boosts and amass higher and higher scores, and in turn unlock more of the game as they go. The challenge is there for hardcore skateboard players, but when they have Neversoft’s far superior Tony Hawk series there’s no reason to play this game. Conversely, the gameplay is too hardcore for casual fans of The Simpsons who are just interested in seeing their favorite characters tell jokes while exploring Springfield. It’s a classic case of attempting to appease both worlds and satisfying neither one.
While the full assortment of grabs and slides and flips are all here, the game isn’t content to simply allow the player to perform those tricks as the core gameplay experience, and with good reason. It gets kind of boring quite quickly in this application. The developers opted to include a mode they call Skate the Tour, which is the game’s primary career mode and is the means by which players can unlock new skaters, maps, and money to upgrade said skaters. Each map unlocked in Skate the Tour mode comes along with three types of challenges. Timed Trick Contest is just as it describes, a mode in which players must perform tricks within a time limit. Skillz School serves as both a tutorial on learning new moves and a challenge in learning how to string those moves and tricks together to increase point yields. Finally, there’s Skatefest, and this is where players will spend most of their time. They are free to roam the map and complete a variety of objectives that boil down to collecting things and achieving a certain score within a time limit. These objectives serve to guide the player around the map and ensure they get to see all the nooks and crannies of the sprawling maps, but they are quite the challenge to complete. I wouldn’t be surprised if most players never got past Springfield Elementary, the first map in the game that features the school and a small collection of business and parks around it.
It may seem lonely to have to skate around a big map collecting stuff, but the game provides a constant companion in the form of narration by Kent Brockman. The developers thankfully included the option to disable Kent Brockman’s running commentary, which immediately devolves into a repetition of each trick performed instead of being idle observations about a player’s performance, allowing an opportunity for, you know, jokes. I would’ve much preferred to see color commentary à la the interstitial scenes in Bart vs. the Juggernauts, but Harry Shearer’s infamous curmudgeonry around lending his voices to other products probably limited the amount of dialogue the developers could include. The player skaters will also chime in with short remarks and exclamations, and other characters also wander the environments and drop lines of dialogue, but these dialogue lines are all few and far between. While there is also music for aural accompaniment, it all falls into that bizarre category of a genre I’ll call techno-ska that feels like it belongs in a skateboarding game from the nineties and not in a game based on a television show with renowned orchestral music by Alf Clausen.
As mentioned, the environments themselves are huge and it’s cool to see familiar characters and landmarks, but it’s quite awkward to explore those environments while riding an unstoppable skateboard. The maps are simply too much, creating huge and intimidating spaces to explore with just a skateboard to navigate them. The player can always pause in place and have a look around, but it’s not the ideal way to tour Springfield. This drawback once again highlights the awkward mash-up of this license and the skateboarding gameplay. The huge environments might have been a plus in an open world action or adventure game, but not in a skateboarding game where the environments have to be relatively free of the kind of minutiae fans of The Simpsons would love to slow down and check out in detail. There are certainly landmarks — hey, there’s Springfield Elementary! And Krusty Burger! — but the space in between is filled with bland and featureless half pipes, rails, vertical ramps, which are all well and good for a skatepark but stand out like a sore toe in the middle of Springfield locations that fans of the show know too well. The game’s finale level is the infamous Springfield Gorge from the “Bart the Daredevil” episode in season 2. It is perhaps the show’s premiere moment in which skateboarding plays an important part in the story. It’s certainly cool to have the opportunity to jump the gorge like Homer tried (and horribly failed) to do in the show, but it requires playing through nine other levels of varying appeal to unlock it. It once again makes me wonder what Code Monkeys could have done if this wasn’t tied to cartoon sitcom characters. Once the player unlocks all the maps and completes the challenges, there’s really no reason to go back in. There’s a multiplayer mode I suppose, but even that is lackluster and feels tacked on as a compromise in trying to match what the competitors were doing.
The game just floats in a limbo. It proves its technical chops with the intricate move and trick gameplay, not to mention the impressively huge maps right out of sprawling platformer epics like Jak and Daxter or Ratchet & Clank. But it fails to create something that fans of the television show would want to explore, and its reliance on the license ruins its appeal for fans of the well-established skateboarding genre. The game floats between the two worlds as a half-formed entity, and its disappointing sales of only 160,000 units shows the idea just didn’t click with customers. I wish I could say the idea had potential, but it just feels like it was doomed to fail from conception.